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Wireless WAN services: Myths versus reality

Wireless WAN services are more robust and reliable than many WAN managers give them credit for. This feature article will bust some of the myths surrounding the wireless WAN.

Wireless WAN (wide area network) services can provide more than network access in remote areas where wired infrastructure is unavailable. They can also provide organizations with flexible, secure and inexpensive branch office connectivity. As appealing as wireless WAN services are on paper, the confusing array of mobile telecommunications cellular protocols and overlapping technology generations mystify many IT administrators.  This confusion can lead to misconceptions about the underlying capabilities of wireless WAN services and prompt many network managers to consider them only as a backup option.

Wireless WAN services may not be the best choice for every application, but network managers who do their due diligence will find that the technology can often be the best connectivity option in certain environments. This feature article will bust some of the myths of wireless WAN services and help you understand how the technology can fit into your wide area network.

Myth: You can’t rely on wireless WAN services for primary connectivity to a branch office.

Reality:  Wireless WAN services are often labeled as unsuitable for primary connectivity for anything but machine-to-machine communications, with critics citing inconsistent service and disappointing performance. As a result, IT administrators often regard wireless WANs as little more than a cheap backup option.  Wireless WANs aren’t the ideal option for primary connectivity in all use cases, but the technology is more than adequate as the main network connection to a branch office in which most applications have low bandwidth requirements. 

Where this works: Wireless WAN services are an obvious choice for companies looking to connect remote offices in regions where there is no wired alternative, and to do so without the buildout expense associated with a T1, which may need to be trenched into the building.  Businesses that put a premium on security are also likely to be drawn to wireless WANs, since cellular services embed security measures such as 128-bit encryption to protect data in transit.  In addition to connecting established branch offices, wireless WAN services can quickly connect temporary locations, often in days rather than weeks or longer.


Myth: 3G wireless WAN is too slow and unreliable. 

Reality: While it is true that 3G wireless WAN services don’t reach the top speeds of a T-1 line (1.544 megabits per second), 3G provides more than adequate bandwidth for many applications.  3G services are a good and less expensive alternative to wired WANs for connecting point of sale locations, mobile to mobile applications, vehicles and branch offices where the throughput requirements are relatively modest.  Concerns about 3G reliability are more justifiable, but recent lab tests do indicate 3G stability is improving, with more carriers boosting their reliability to ratings above the 80% mark.

Where this works: That 80% reliability rating will be unacceptable for most businesses that will blanch at the idea of one-fifth or more of data and voice traffic being dropped.  While 3G may offer adequate speeds, stability questions will still give organizations pause.  That isn’t to say 3G may not have a place in a business environment.  3G can still work as a good backup connection to a wired network or even as a feasible primary connection for certain applications, such as wireless kiosks where best effort is sufficient and the low cost boosts 3G to the top of the options list.


Myth: 4G services are lower performing than wired connections.

Reality:  The advent of new services such as Sprint’s WiMax could upend the long-held belief that wired infrastructure is always the superior performer.  Sprint promises blistering 10 Mbps downloads and 2.5 Mbps uploads. 

Where this works: For companies that need to rapidly set up -- and often quickly tear down -- a branch office, 4G delivers speed, flexibility and convenience against which wired networks can't compete.  Also, 4G wireless WAN services make a good backup choice for businesses that want a low-cost alternative to wireline services.

Myth: You can’t get service-level agreements (SLAs) for wireless WAN services.

Reality:  Performance and reliability concerns of 3G-based services have led many businesses to assume that wireless WANs are subpar, a view that was reinforced by the lack of concrete service-level guarantees.  However, this view is starting to change with the introduction of new 4G services that are positioned to compete almost as much on performance as they do on price. Operators are beginning to offer service-level agreements (SLAs) that promise specific availability levels.   

Where this works: For a business looking at 4G as a viable secondary network connectivity option but concerned about the stability of the solution, new SLAs offer a degree of reassurance.  However, these SLA offerings are still immature, and most providers offer only the most basic metrics in their agreements.

Myth:  You can’t measure application performance on wireless WAN services.

Reality:  One of the bigger knocks against wireless WAN services is that a network manager cannot measure his or her performance.  However, new tools have emerged that allow providers to capture performance data across an entire network, giving operators crucial visibility into their wireless WAN services. Wavelink’s Avalanche software enables IT administrators to configure, monitor and manage wireless WAN infrastructure and mobile devices from a central console.  Hardware vendors are building more management capabilities into their infrastructure. Cisco added technology in its 3G Wireless High-Speed WAN Interface Cards (HWICs) that allows monitoring software to track conditions on the network such as signal strength, network availability and data connection statistics.

How this will benefit clients:  The ability to monitor and measure application performance across the entire network will help providers be more proactive with network management.  Providers should be able to better address Quality of Service (QoS), crafting real performance guarantees tied to key business issues. 


About the author:

Amy DeCarlo has covered technology for 18 years.    She is a Principal Analyst with competitive intelligence firm Current Analysis.

This was last published in October 2011

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